[News] We Won’t Go Back to Normal, Because Normal Was the Problem
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Thu Mar 26 19:30:18 EDT 2020
Won’t Go Back to Normal, Because Normal Was the Problem: The Thirteenth
March 26, 2020
Greetings from the desk of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research
It is hard to remember that just a few weeks ago, the planet was in motion.
There were protests in Delhi (India) and Quito (Ecuador), eruptions against
the old order that ranged from anger at the economic policies of austerity
and neoliberalism to frustration with the cultural policies of misogyny and
racism. Ingeniously, in Santiago (Chile), during its wave after wave of
protests, someone projected a powerful slogan onto the side of a building:
‘we won’t go back to normal, because normal was the problem’. Now, in the
midst of the novel coronavirus, it seems impossible to imagine a return to
the old world, the world that left us so helpless before the arrival of
these deadly microscopic particles. Waves of anxiety prevail; death
continues to stalk us. If there is a future, we say to each other, it
cannot mimic the past.
Certainly, the coronavirus is a serious matter and certainly its spread is
a consequence of its own danger to the human body; but there are social
issues here that bear serious thought. Key to any discussion has to be the
sheer collapse of State institutions in most of the capitalist world, where
these institutions have been privatised, and where private institutions
have operated to minimise costs and maximise profit.
This is most clear in the health sector, where public health institutions
have been underfunded, where medical care has been transferred to private
corporations, and where private hospitals and clinics operate without any
surge capacity. This means that there are simply not enough hospital beds
or medical equipment (masks, ventilators, etc.) and that the nurses,
doctors, paramedics, janitors, and others on the front line are forced to
operate in conditions of acute scarcity, in many cases without basic
protection. It is often the people who make the least who are putting the
most at stake to save lives in the face of the rapidly spreading pandemic.
When a global pandemic strikes, the private-sector austerity model simply
Furthermore, our economic system has been so completely tilted to favour
the financial sector and the plutocracy that it has – for a long time –
simply ignored the growth of large-scale and permanent precarious
employment, underemployment, and unemployment. This is not a problem
created by the coronavirus or by the collapse of oil prices; this is a
structural problem for which a term – *precariat*, or precarious
proletariat – was invented at least a decade ago. With lockdowns and social
isolation, small businesses have shuttered, and precarious workers find
that their precarity defines them entirely. Even the most hardened
bourgeois politicians are now forced to confront the reality of two points:
1. That workers exist. The State-imposed general strike to prevent the
spread of the virus and its consequences have proved that it is workers
who produce value in our society and not ‘entrepreneurs’ who generate
ideas, which they claim fancifully produces wealth. A world without workers
is a world that halts.
2. That the share of global wealth and income that workers control is
now so low that they have limited reserves when their hard-earned incomes
collapse. In the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the
world, a 2018 Federal Reserve study
found that 40% of US households do not have the means to deal with
unexpected expenses of around $400. The situation is not much better in the
European Union, where the Eurostat data
shows that 32% of households cannot bear unexpected expenses. That is why
in the capitalist States there is now openly talk of widespread income
support – even a Universal Basic Income – to manage the collapse of
livelihoods and to stimulate consumer demand.
Last week, the International Peoples Assembly and Tricontinental: Institute
for Social Research released a 16-point programme
for this complex moment. A concatenation of crises has struck us: there are
the long-term structural crises of capitalism (decline in the rate of
profit, low rates of investment in the productive sector, underemployment
and precarious employment), and there are the short-term conjunctural
crises (collapse of the price of oil, the coronavirus).
It is now widely recognised, even by the investment houses, that the
strategy for recovery from the 2008-09 financial crisis is not going to
work; pumping large amounts of cash into the banking sector will not help.
Directed investments are necessary in areas that had previously faced
serious austerity cuts – areas such as health care, including public
health, and income support. Manuel Bertoldi of *Frente Patria Grande*
(Argentina) and I make the case
for a serious debate around these issues. More than a debate about each
separate policy, we need a debate about the very nature of how to
understand the State and its institutions.
A key achievement of austerity capitalism has been to delegitimise the idea
of State institutions (notably those that improve the well-being of the
population). In the West, the typical attitude has been to attack the
government as an enemy of progress; to shrink government institutions –
except the military – has been the goal. Any country with a robust
government and State structure has been characterised as ‘authoritarian’.
But this crisis has shaken that certainty. Countries with intact State
institutions that have been able to handle the pandemic – such as China
– cannot be easily dismissed as authoritarian; a general understanding has
come that these governments and their State institutions are instead
efficient. Meanwhile, the States of the West that have been eaten into by
austerity policies are now fumbling to deal with the crisis. The failure of
the austerity health care system is now clearly visible. It is impossible
to make the case any longer that privatisation and austerity are more
efficient than a system of State institutions that are made efficient over
time by the process of trial and error.
The coronavirus has now crept into Palestine; most alarmingly, there is at
least one case in Gaza, which is one of the world’s largest open-air
prisons. The Palestinian Communist poet Samih al-Qasim (1939-2014) used to
call his homeland the ‘great prison’, from whose isolation he gifted his
luminous poetry. One of his poems, ‘Confession at Midday’, offers a brief
journey into the emotional damage done to the world by austerity and
I planted a tree
I scorned the fruit
I used its trunk as firewood
I made a lute
And played a tune
I smashed the lute
Lost the fruit
Lost the tune
I wept over the tree
The coronavirus has only just begun to make its impact on India, whose
public health system has been deeply eroded by a generation of neoliberal
economic policies. Within India, the state of Kerala (population 35
million) – governed by the Left Democratic Front – is in the midst of a
deeply campaign to tackle the coronavirus – as Subin Dennis, a researcher
at the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, and I make clear in
Our findings suggest that Kerala has certain in-built advantages and that
it has put in place measures that are worthy of study.
How is Kerala tackling the Coronavirus pandemic?
1. Kerala’s Left governments over the past several decades have fought
to maintain and even extend the public health system.
2. Kerala’s Left parties and organisations have helped develop a culture
of organisation, solidarity, and public action.
3. Kerala’s Left government was swift in enacting measures to trace
those infected by the virus through ‘contact tracing’ and testing at
4. The Chief Minister and Health Minister held daily press conferences
that calmly provided the public with credible information and an analysis
of the crisis and unfolding events.
5. The slogan ‘Break the Chain’ captures the attempt by the government
and by society to enforce forms of physical isolation, quarantine, and
treatment to prevent the spread of the virus.
6. The slogan ‘Physical Distance, Social Unity’ underlines the
importance of raising resources to assist those in economic and
7. Public action – led by trade unions, youth groups, women’s
organisations, and cooperatives – of cleaning and preparing supplies has
lifted the spirit of the people, encouraging them to trust in social unity
and not to fragment into trauma.
8. Finally, the government announced a relief package worth Rs. 20,000
crores, which includes loans to families through the women’s cooperative
Kudumbashree, higher allocations for a rural employment guarantee scheme,
two months of pension payments to the elderly, free food grains, and
restaurants to provide food at subsidised rates. Utility payments for water
and electricity as well as interest on debt payments will be suspended.
This is a rational and decent programme; it, along with the 16-point plan,
should be studied and adopted elsewhere. To dither is to play with the
lives of people.
Colombia has implemented a national nineteen-day quarantine. Meanwhile, in
prisons in Colombia, inmates held a protest against overcrowding and bad
health facilities, fearing the death count if coronavirus breaches the
walls; the crackdown by the State led to the death of twenty-three people.
This is a fear in prisons around the world.
Meanwhile on 19 March, Marco Rivadeneira, an important leader of the
agricultural worker and peasant movement in Colombia, was in a meeting with
peasants in the municipality of Puerto Asís. Three armed men burst into the
meeting, seized Marco, and assassinated him
He is one of more than a hundred leaders of popular movements who has been
assassinated this year in Colombia, and one of eight hundred murdered since
2016 when the civil war was suspended. As Tricontinental: Institute for
Social Research dossier no. 23
(December 2019) shows, this violence is a direct consequence of the
unwillingness of the oligarchy to allow history to advance. They want to
return to a ‘normal’ situation that benefits them. But Marco wanted to
create a new world. He was killed for the hope that motivated him.
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